CASTRES, FRANCE – In 2013, Castres Olympique were crowned Top 14 champions. In 2014, they scraped into the play-offs and then ended Clermont’s epic four-year winning run at Stade Marcel Michelin on their way to their second final in a row, only to meet a Toulon side determined to give His Gloriously Mighty Celestial Imperial Highness Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson the perfect retirement present.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2015, Castres again proved themselves to be the strongest side in France’s Top 14, this time by propping up all the other teams in the league.
It’s safe to say the Tarn side is in crisis. Their 13-9 defeat against near-rivals Toulouse in the ruins of the fortress that was Stade Pierre Antoine was their fourth defeat in a row in all competitions.
Toby Flood scored all the visitors’ points, including the only try of a sloppy and heavy-footed game under the posts midway through the first half. Fullback Julien Dumora slotted three penalties for the hosts, as they picked up the dubious honour of a barely deserved defensive bonus point in the dying minutes.
This was not a match to show off the qualities of the Top 14. Heavy, sucking, energy-sapping, soul-destroying, mud underfoot turned the game into a slow-motion pitched battle between two sets of increasingly hard-to-identify forwards. It was tight. It was played at a stodgy pace around the fringes. It was occasionally brutal. It was error-strewn. It definitely wasn’t pretty.
And the predicted mouth-watering midfield battle of skills between Toulouse’s Gael Fickou and Castres’ Remi Lamerat was reduced to an occasional flashes-of-talent sideshow.
Toulouse, predictably given their own problems this season and their embarrassing exit from the European Rugby Champions Cup, started the game like scalded cats. But it was Castres who drew first blood with a seventh-minute penalty.
Flood levelled after 18 minutes. His converted try, three minutes later, gave Toulouse a lead they would barely even looked like giving up.
Castres thought they had found the perfect answer seconds before halftime, when France reject Lamerat was forced over the line by an unstoppable mass of his own forwards. But the referee spotted a double movement on the TV replay and instead awarded a pressure-relieving pentalty.
And epic on-the-line Toulouse defence kept wave after breaking wave at bay in a ferocious three-minute spell of pack-led bleu-et-blanc pressure early in the second half.
The visitors had the measure of their hosts. When Castres’ forwards weren’t battering around the fringes, fly-half Dan Kirkpatrick was firing garryowen bombs at an impervious back three of Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and Timoci Matanavou. It was predictable rugby and relatively simple to defend.
And that’s all Toulouse had to do after Flood had restored their seven-point lead with 30 minutes left on the clock. Dumora made sure of the losing bonus point with just a minute to go.
Montpellier’s renaissance under Jake White continued in a glittering poster match for the Top 14 against Bordeaux at the Altrad Stadium.
The hosts came to life after scrum-half Benoit Paillaugue was sent off for a dangerous tackle in the 20th minute. It was 3-3 at the time. Five minutes later, it was 11-6 to the hosts, after number 8 Akapusi Qera rampaged his way down the wing like Jonah Lomu in slow-motion for the first of a personal brace of tries.
The score owed much to the talents of Rene Ranger, who somehow found a way out of one double-tackle, then freed his arms from a second two-man hit to offload.
Louis Benoit Madaule muscled his way over the line despite the attentions of several Montpellier defenders just before halftime. Trying to stop the score left Montpellier’s David Attoub in agony. He hobbled off the field, leaving the hosts’ bench looking very thin indeed.
And when Yann Lesgourgues scored less than 10 minutes into the second 40, it seemed that the 14 men of Montpellier were running out of steam, ideas and will.
It may have been true of the old Montpellier. But not this one. Enzo Selponi, very much a fringe player under Fabien Galthie, came on as a replacement shortly before halfime – and earned his corn with a touchdown after 63 minutes.
Another recent forgotten Herault man, Jonathan Pelissie, notched three penalties and two conversions.
Bordeaux were still in the hunt as the clock ticked down – but Qera’s second score on 78 minutes made sure the hosts picked up the win their newfound attitude deserved. Pelissie converted to take the final score to 34-24.
If Montpellier v Bordeaux was the game of the Top 14 weekend, the result of the latest round of the competition came at Stade Marcel Deflandre where La Rochelle – who started the day at the foot of the table – beat league leaders Clermont 16-12.
The game looked set to be decided by the boot as the hosts’ Peter Grant and the visitors’ Brock James traded penalties. The Clermont man was winning the kicking game-within-a-game by four kicks to three when – with just three minutes left – winger Mali Hingano scored the only try of the match. Grant then levelled the battle of the boot to ensure the Rochelais claimed another famous scalp at home and moved off the foot of the table.
Oyonnax matched La Rochelle’s performance, and maintained their own capacity to surprise, beating Stade Francais 15-13 at Stade Jean Bouin. Benjamin Urdapiletta scored all the visitors’ points from the kicking tee as Oyonnax gate-crashed and ruined Jules Plisson’s new-contract celebrations.
Djibril Camara scored the only try of the game after 18 minutes, but the visitors’ Argentinian fly-half ensured Oyonnax went in at halftime 10-12 up, and although Plisson put the hosts ahead after 50 minutes, their lead lasted a brief 10 minutes before Urdapiletta had the final word.
Those two defeats and Toulon’s victory over Bayonne on Friday night means that there’s a three-way tie at the head of the Top 14, with Clermont, Stade and the defending champions locked on 51 points.
Toulon’s 24-17 win at Stade Mayol was a long way from impressive. The Var side just about did enough to win but stronger opposition would have given them a serious run for their money.
As it was, Bayonne were enough to give their illustrious hosts a scare or two. Five minutes after Bryan Habana opened the try-scoring, Martin Bustos-Moyano latched on to an innocuous-looking kick ahead that Drew Mitchell had mysteriously allowed to bounce and ran, unopposed to the line.
And, six minutes after Toulon prop Levan Chilachava surprised himself as much as anyone else by flopping over from short range, Bayonne centre Matthieu Ugalde rather more gracefully found an answer.
In the end, the combined kicking talents of Juan Martin Hernandez and Nicolas Sanchez proved the difference. Between them, they notched up four penalties and a conversion. Bustos-Moyano converted both Bayonne’s tries but managed just one penalty.
Racing Metro’s Brice Dulin ensured his side went into halftime 7-3 up at Lyon with a spectacular 60m solo try five minutes before the whistle called a halt to an otherwise completely forgettable first half.
And, by the time an almost equally completely forgettable second half was mercifully brought to a close, fly-half Johan Goosen had made sure they stayed in front with two penalties, despite Lyon prop-sized scrum-half Enrico Januarie’s 49th-minute try. The game ended 13-11, with Jerome Porical landing two penalties for the hosts – but, crucially, missing the conversion attempt.
Brive hammered Grenoble 23-0 at Stade Amédée Domenech. Gaetan Germain opened the scoring with a penalty midway through the first half. It was the only score of the first half. Two more penalties extended the hosts’ lead before serial medical joker Christopher Tuatara and Arnaud Mela crossed to the whitewash for the hosts.
The Top 14 now takes a break during the opening two weeks of the Six Nations. The next round of matches kicks off on Thursday, February 19, when La Rochelle entertain Brive. Next week, defending Top 14 champions Toulon face Super Rugby’s Sharks in a friendly battle of the hemispheres.
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